MOSCOW -- A poet in the southern region of Krasnodar is being investigated in what is thought to be the first criminal case opened by Russian police into allegations of insulting the feelings of atheists.
The investigation into Maksim Drozdov was opened under legislation that criminalizes “insulting believers’ religious feelings” and is typically used to defend the powerful and politically well-connected Russian Orthodox Church and its followers.
Signed into law in 2013, the legislation exemplifies what many regard as a conservative shift toward "traditional" values in President Vladimir Putin’s third term as president, as well as the rising influence of the Orthodox Church. Critics say it has been used to stifle freedom of expression and is open to abuse.
The case against Drozdov was launched over poetry posted on the social network VK on the page of a satirical group called Patriotic Work (Patrioticheskoe Tvorchestvo). The line of verse that attracted authorities' attention read: “There aren’t people worse than dreadful atheists, we will bring back the Inquisition yet!”
In a Facebook post on October 18, Drozdov’s lawyer, Aleksei Avanesyan, quoted from an “analysis” of his client’s poetry included in the police's case file. The document asserted that comments had been identified that “negatively assess” atheists on the basis of their religion. It said those comments “call for hostile activities by one group (believers in God) on another group of people (those who do not believe -- atheists).”
An unnamed Investigative Committee spokesman told the Argumenty I Fakty newspaper on October 19 that “poetry with extremist content was published on a social network in May this year.” The spokesman said the investigation was launched following citizen complaints and is still under way.
In comments to the RBC business holding, however, Drozdov protested that his poems had been misunderstood. Describing his views as "antifascist," he said the poems are satirical works seeking to mock not atheists but the “obscurantism” of religious fanatics in the country.
He said they “mocked obscurantism and predicted the imminent arrival of the Inquisition,” an apparent reference to the rising prominence of radical Orthodox activists in the country. He described the poem as "trolling," written from the perspective of an imagined writer.
He also told RBC that he wasn't the author of the second poem -- that he had received it and corrected some mistakes in it before publishing it on the group page. He said he deleted it soon afterward.
In a VK post, the Patriotic Work group on October 18 also wrote that the poems had been misunderstood. It called them “everyday banter about religious fanatics, about the idiots who today are threatening terror attacks on cinemas,” a reference to radical Orthodox activists who have threatened violence if Matilda, a new film about Tsar Nicholas II’s affair with a ballerina, is screened.
The group noted the irony of Drozdov's situation, saying the poem sought to mock “those who are calling for a return to the 16th century” but that “atheists took it as an insult on them.” It wrote “Hands off Drozdov” and “No to [criminal] articles against thought crimes!”
The Patriotic Work group carries the banner “In Heaven There Is God, On Earth There Is Statesman Vladimir Putin” and carries a picture depicting Putin as a Roman emperor with a halo around his head.
The law on religious feelings was passed in 2013 after women from the Pussy Riot punk collective were jailed for shooting a music video at the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in which they attacked close ties between the church and the Kremlin.
Since the law was passed, several Russians have been prosecuted and convicted. Although none has received prison time, the cases have attracted international attention.
In May, Ruslan Sokolovsky was found guilty of hate speech and insulting religious believers' feelings when he aired profanity-laced clips in which he mocked Christianity and Islam and played Pokemon Go in a church. He was given a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence.
Other cases have seen Russians prosecuted for lighting a cigarette with a church candle or using a religious icon as a paintbrush.
The law on insulting religious feelings has irked known atheists, including veteran journalist Vladimir Pozner, who in May asked rhetorically on his national Channel One TV show whether publicly voicing his atheist views could land him in jail.